Open data: connecting people – just like BSG

BSG alumni Fiona Smith (left), Enrique Zapata and Emma Truswell

BSG alumni Fiona Smith (left), Enrique Zapata and Emma Truswell

It should not have surprised me that my first unplanned BSG connection happened at an international leaders’ event. This week, my team at the Open Data Institute has brought together outstanding open data leaders from governments around the world as the inaugural cohort of the Open Data Leaders Network, starting with an intensive week of peer-to-peer learning and discussing shared challenges, led by Liz Carolan and Dr David Tarrant.

On Monday, I greeted our visitors with Fiona Smith – another colleague from BSG, who graduated with me last year and is now international development researcher at the Open Data Institute. We met Enrique Zapata, a young Mexican official working on Mexico’s ambitious and fast-moving open data initiative. And we soon learned that Enrique is also among the BSG alumni, as a member of its inaugural class in 2012/13. This week, Mexico launched its first open data executive decree, which Enrique drafted and led in its path through government.

Enrique explains to Fiona (left) and Emma Mexico’s new open data executive order, published today

Enrique explains to Fiona (left) and Emma Mexico’s new open data executive order, published today

There have been parallels between our approach this week in bringing leaders together and the philosophy of BSG. Like our colleagues studying the MPP, our open data leaders come from a wide spread of geography and levels of development: Malaysia, Macedonia, Chile, Morocco, Moldova, the UK and Mexico. One of the exciting things about open data as a policy area is that even the longest-running and most successful open data programmes are little more than five years old. It is an area in which best practice is not fully entrenched, and it brings together government, the private sector, academia and civil society around the world as part of a movement towards openness. There is more space than there might be in other, more established policy areas to learn from one another and innovate together.

But leading open data initiatives in governments also presents particular challenges. The first is that achieving a shift in government approach towards “open by default” requires a fundamental shift in the role of many civil servants: from information protector to information disseminator. This might go against many decades of training about the sanctity of every piece of government information. So the most successful open data initiatives are managed not as a technological project, but as a culture change initiative right across government. In Mexico, for example, the Open Data Institute worked with Enrique’s team to establish Data Squads, spending intensive time with targeted ministries to help share new skills and a new way of thinking about the role of government.

Secondly, open data leaders often face very real fear from their colleagues and bosses. These vary, but include national security, privacy concerns, the risk of embarrassment to the administration, and concerns about the quality of data. Leading these initiatives can be a lonely job, as a controversial voice attempting to reassure others in government that open data will not bring disaster. And while we now have early examples of how open data can lead to innovation, job creation and improved efficiency in government services, these are scattered and sometimes poorly quantified. Around the world, we are building open data policies at the same time as we assess them. The approach is iterative and agile, and this can be an uncomfortable approach within government.

Finally, the kinds of people leading open data initiatives in government are not always typical officials. They are often younger, and some have a background outside government – perhaps in the tech community or in a start-up – and this can also present challenges dealing with the bureaucratic machine.

There is exciting potential in connecting leaders facing similar challenges around the world, just as BSG does. And at the end of our first day, one of our participants commented, “I used to think that developing countries faced more challenges than developed countries. But now I see that it’s all about people, and people are the same everywhere… [so our challenges are very similar]… I am looking forward to learning from others’ success.” And today, as we wrap-up our week, another participant said she now felt, “I am not alone in the world. There are others with the same pain. But it also gives me hope, because we can come up with answers together”.


Emma Truswell graduated from BSG in 2014, and now helps to oversee the Open Data Institute’s open data advisory services for governments.

Mexico’s open data portal can be viewed at datos.gob.mx.

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